Veteran American independent filmmaker Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce) doesn’t make many films, but the master of precision is consistently fascinating on an academic level, and because he works outside of Hollywood, must work hard to source funding. He is celebrated for his cinematic representation of gay people, authentic period reproduction, experimentation with gaze, and his fascinating female characters, whom he offers point-of-view and agency. They are always examined in thoughtful and complex ways, making Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking source material, The Price of Salt, a perfect fit for his sensibilities. Haynes has worked with in the past and drawn stunning performances from Julianne Moore (Safe and Far From Heaven) and Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), and this is second collaboration with Cate Blanchett (who takes on one of the portrayals of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).
His exquisite and elegantly restrained romantic drama Carol, which has been on every film buff’s most anticipated list since its première at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Queer Palm), is an enchantingly beautiful production. With striking 16mm film compositions, an authentic recreation of 1950s Manhattan, and a lovely score from Carter Burwell – it is a moving adaptation of Highsmith’s transcendent, heart-swelling tale. She is perhaps best known for writing The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train (which have also been adapted for the screen), but due to the book’s homosexual relationship, she wrote The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Written for the screen by Phyllis Nagy, it has gone on to be a multi-BAFTA and Academy Award-nominee. The two lead actresses, the faultless Blanchett and the astonishing Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects), are absolutely radiant, but every frame of the film is a work of art.
The film opens just before Christmas from the perspective of Therese Belivet (Mara), an early 20-something Manhattan department store clerk and aspiring photographer who dreams of a more fulfilling life. When she meets the alluring and elegant Carol (Blanchett), over a decade her senior, perusing the toy display, an immediate connection sparks between them. After their first interaction at the store, which leads to Carol’s purchase of a train set for her daughter, she leaves her gloves behind on the counter. Therese’s thoughtful return of the gloves leads to a second meeting, during which Carol extends an invitation to Therese to visit her home (and later take a trip with her). In the throes of breaking free from the confines of her marriage, Carol’s husband starts to threaten her competence as a mother as her relationship with Therese deepens, while Therese starts an internal journey of self-discovery as she upsets her stable but stagnant life, committed to exploring her complex new feelings for Carol wherever they take her.
In the pursuit of this relationship both women have to make sacrifices. Therese has a steady boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), who is in love with her, but his excitement and commitment to them taking a trip through Europe is not something she shares. When she meets Carol she realises that her feelings for Richard cannot compete and she cripples the relationship in rather insensitive style. Carol is embroiled in a custody battle with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who feels as though the broken marriage is a stain on his pride and professional reputation. He no longer wishes Carol to have regular contact with their daughter Rindy and will go to great lengths – to the point of hiring a PI to tail Carol and Therese and collect evidence of their affair – to strengthen his case. Carol’s close friendship with Abby (Sarah Paulson, terrific) adds further complications. Therese and Carol’s extended road trip together, due to the irregular nature of their relationship, feels like they are committing a crime. Their passions hit their peak during this trip, but there is an ever-present danger. This romance plays out like a noir thriller, with the acute understanding of the time and place imperative to capturing the essence and developing the aesthetic.
Haynes does an extraordinary job of capturing his actresses radiant faces, whose understated performances beautifully capture the ambiguities – the barely suppressed desires, the choked-down sorrow – of the attraction and the accompanying gauntlet of emotions. It is a film of warm, comfortable silences and of longing looks across the table amidst the dreamy haze of cigarette smoke. It is a film about isolation in a big city; Therese is captured often gazing out the window, obscured by frosty, rain-soaked glass. Just as Carol and Therese are alluringly captured from the point-of-view of the other woman, their beauty hypnotising, we also feel like voyeurs who are privileged to their private connection. These women were at the mercy of their gender roles, and social expectations. Therese felt bustled down a path of no return – becoming Richard’s wife. Carol desperately tried to remain a mother, unwilling to let go of her child, but was backed into a corner where she had to choose between Therese or Rindy.
There are some significant changes from the novel, which I read after seeing the film, most notably that the screenplay does lend Carol a unique point-of-view, as we briefly accompany her as she fights for the custody of her daughter without the presence of Therese. The novel is entirely from Therese’s perspective, and exchanges between Therese and Richard are retained. Another difference is that Therese is an aspiring stage designer in the novel, and is given several apprentice opportunities. In the film her and Richard’s mutual friend Dannie (John Magaro), who also exists in the novel, offers to introduce her to a photo-editor who works for The New York Times. While Carol’s vulnerability and her fragility is explored, she is painted in a better light (she literally glows most of the time) than the novel. Her selfishness and short temper is sidelined.
While the film’s restraint and art-film tendencies will likely surprise viewers unfamiliar with Haynes’ style, this stunning film perfectly captures the way feelings can mature and illuminate, and yet also betray us. The performances are wonderful, and it gorgeously photographed.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer(s): Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy
Runtime: 118 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: January 14, 2016